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Women debate wearing Islamic head scarf

What sets the first-year medical student apart from her girlfriends is the head scarf, or hijab, she always wears _ and is careful to match with whatever tight ankle-length skirt and fitted, long-sleeved blouse she has picked out that day.

"Every morning I wake up, I am aware of my hijab identity," says Ali, 21. "I have to be, because it determines the way I behave toward people and them toward me.

"I always feel I have to prove to them that my wearing the hijab doesn't mean that I am a fanatic, close-minded or backward or even an extremist, but that I'm very much like them."

Ali is not alone in Lebanon's diversified society of Muslims and Christians, where it is not uncommon to see women dressed in black and a head scarf walking hand-in-hand with girlfriends _ or even sisters and relatives _ whose hair flows freely and who wear skimpier outfits.

And it's also not uncommon to see young "hijabed" women wearing makeup. For Lebanon's Shiite Muslim and Sunni Muslim women, dress ranges from traditional black to the fashionable colorful scarf tied under the chin, with the face showing, to the typically Western short skirts or slacks favored by Lebanese Christians.

Although many Muslim women wear the hijab because of tradition or because they're pressured to by families or religious figures, many others do so of their own free will _ like Sawsan Herbawi, 38, who comes from a family that was not particularly religious.

She hides her long, naturally blond hair under a polyester scarf, exposing only her green eyes and freckled face.

Until six years ago, Herbawi not only was "hysterically against the hijab" _ as she put it _ but preferred clothes that were head-turningly revealing. Suddenly one day, she changed to a black robe and a plain headscarf.

"I don't know why I became hijabed. It was shocking to me because I used to be disgusted by it, I was against the principle of women wearing it," she said. "I felt something inside, I don't know what, but the feeling told me that I should wear the hijab."

Her husband was speechless when she told him of her decision, but didn't try to stop her.

She first donned the hijab on a visit to the shrine of a Shiite Muslim saint in the Syrian capital of Damascus, hoping the saint, Syeda Zainab, would give her the strength to keep the hijab on forever.

"After all, hijab is an obligation for a Muslim woman," Herbawi said as she took a drag from her cigarette.

However, she said wearing the head scarf has not changed her.

"I'm the same person inside and outside. I only hide my hair. Now I go to women-only beaches and wear a bathing suit, like I used to. ... But I do not shake hands with men. That's not allowed in our religion," she said.

Still, she discourages her 11-year-old daughter from wearing the head scarf. "I don't let her _ not until she grows up and decides whether she really wants it or not," Herbawi said.

Ali also tried to discourage her younger sister, Mariam, when she insisted on wearing the hijab at age 12 _ but to no avail. Ali herself first wore the headscarf at 12.

At their religious school, the two sisters had been lectured that the hijab was an Islamic obligation, that it would protect them from men's malicious eyes. Their hijab-wearing mother had argued they should not take up the scarf too early, but both went ahead.

"For me it was an adventure and I thought it would make me look older and mature," said Ali.

Later, she started having regrets about wearing the scarf while still a child but was too embarrassed to take it off, worried about what her family and teacher would say.

Mariam Ali also had regrets and said she, too, was "ashamed" to speak up.

"I was hoping someone, my mother or Shereen, would tell me to take it off. But they didn't," she said. So she kept quiet and by the following year she had become convinced of wearing it.

These days, both Shereen and Mariam Ali, now 18, warn their 12-year-old sister Sara to stay away from the head scarf, despite pressure from her religion teacher. Sara needs little persuading; she loves to put colorful ornaments in her light brown hair and finds the head scarf "boring."

"If I put on the hijab, I won't be able to wear earrings," she says. "I like looking pretty."

But, she adds: "I know when I grow older _ maybe in a year or two _ I will have to wear it. My sisters wear it, so I will also have to, and because our teacher tells us the Quran says it's the duty of the girl to wear it, I will have to. God will punish me if I don't."


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